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Which Online Translator Is Best?

Five Popular Translation Services Put to the Test

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It has been more than 11 years since I last reviewed the quality of free Spanish-English translation available online. The verdict in 2001 was clear: Even the best translations available weren't very good, making serious errors in vocabulary and grammar, many of them that wouldn't be made by a first-year Spanish student.

Now, in 2013, at least a generation later in Internet time, is online translation any better? In a word, yes. The free translators seem to do a better job of handling simple sentences, and some of them appear to be making a serious effort to deal with idioms and context rather than translating a word at a time. But they still fall far short of being reliable and should never be counted on when you must correctly understand more than the gist of what is being said in a foreign language.

Which of the major online translation services is best? See the results of the experiment that follow to find out.

Put to the test: To compare the translation services, I used sample sentences from three lessons in the Real Spanish Grammar series, mostly because I had already analyzed the sentences for Spanish students. I used the results of five major translation services: Google Translate, presumably the most-used such service; Bing Translator, which is run by Microsoft and is also the successor to the AltaVista translation service that I reviewed in 1998; Babylon, an online version of the popular translation software; PROMT, also an online version of PC software; and FreeTranslation.com, a service of the globalization company SDL.

The first sentence I tested was also the most straightforward and came from a lesson on the use of de que. It yielded quite good results:

  • Original Spanish: No cabe duda de que en los últimos cinco años, el destino de América Latina ha sido influenciado fuertemente por tres de sus más visionarios y decididos líderes: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa y Evo Morales.
  • My translation: There is no room for doubt that in the last five years, the destiny of Latin America has been strongly influenced by three of its most visionary and audacious leaders: Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Best online translation (Bing, tied for first): There is no doubt that in the past five years, the fate of Latin America has been strongly influenced by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Best online translation (Babylon, tied for first): There is no doubt that in the past five years, the fate of Latin America has been heavily influenced by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales.
  • Worst online translation (PROMT): There is not doubt that in the last five years, the destination of Latin America has been influenced hard by three of its most visionary and determined leaders: Moral Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa y Evo.
  • Ranking (best to worst): Bing, Babylon, Google, FreeTranslation, PROMT.

All five online translations used "fate" to translate destino, and that's better than the "destiny" I used.

Google erred only in failing to create a complete sentence, starting out with "no doubt" instead of "there is no doubt" or the equivalent.

The final two translators encountered a common problem that computer software is more prone to than humans: They couldn't distinguish names from words that needed to be translated. As shown above, PROMT thought Morales was a plural adjective; FreeTranslation changed Rafael Correa's name to Rafael Strap.

The second test sentence came from a lesson on hacer that I chose partly to see if the character of Santa Claus would still be recognizable from the translations.

  • Original Spanish: El traje rojo, la barba blanca, la barriga protuberante y la bolsa repleta de regalos hicieron que, por arte de magia, los ojos de los pacientes de pediatría del Hospital Santa Clara volvieran a brillar.
  • My translation: The red suit, the white beard, the protruding belly and the bag full of gifts made the eyes of the pediatric patients at Santa Clara Hospital magically light up again.
  • Best online translation (Google): The red suit, white beard, protruding belly and bag full of gifts made, by magic, the eyes of pediatric patients at Hospital Santa Clara back to shine.
  • Worst online translation (Babylon): The red suit, beard, white belly protruding and the bag full of gifts made, by magic, the eyes of the pediatric patients of the Hospital Santa Clara back to shine.
  • Ranking (best to worst): Google, Bing, PROMT, FreeTranslation, Babylon.

Google's translation, although flawed, was good enough that a reader unfamiliar with Spanish would easily understood what was meant. But all of the other translations had serious problems. I thought that Babylon's attribution of blanca (white) to Santa's stomach rather than his beard was inexplicable and thus deemed it the worst translation. But FreeTranslation's wasn't much better, as it referred to Santa's "market of gifts"; bolsa is a word that can refer to a bag or purse as well as a stock market.

Neither Bing nor PROMT knew how to handle the hospital's name. Bing referred to "clear the Santa Hospital," since clara can be an adjective meaning "clear"; PROMT referred to the Holy Hospital Clara, since santa can mean "holy."

What surprised me the most about the translations is that none of them correctly translated volvieron. The phrase volver a followed by an infinitive is a very common way of saying that something happens again. The everyday phrase should have been programmed into the translators.

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